michael j. morris

Trio A, Labanotation, dance as text, and the validity of phenomenological hermeneutics

I’ve been spinning in a sea of sources . . . and I really need to be writing the paper/presentation itself. I even have some sense of what it is going to be, how it will all shape up, but I feel stuck in the “information gathering” phase.

I’m writing a paper, you see. Another paper. I feel a little exhausted of writing mediocre papers every ten weeks. I think I have written a large paper every quarter that I’ve been in grad school. They are never completely what I want them to be, they never have the time to develop into what I aspire towards as far as quality writing, and I have yet had time to return to any of them because there is always yet another paper to write. I keep telling myself that one day I will have time to revisit some of that work, revise what feels worth revising, seek publication for that which continues to feel relevant. But for now I am forging ahead on yet another relatively mediocre paper. This one is orbiting Trio A: I am looking to consider the dance as text, dancing as a site for knowledge, and the “embodied scholarship” that the program I am in so adamantly advocates but seems to so rarely achieve. I don’t know whether I will achieve anything of consequence in this endeavor, but I felt as if I needed to start trying to make those connections: how can the dancing body by the site of research, the formation of knowledge, the “doing” of history and theory. Trio A became a kind of “case study” for this hazy methodology. More specifically, my process has involved reading/dancing Trio A, choreographed by Yvonne Rainer in 1966, as notated by Melanie Clark and Joukje Kolff in 2003. To be clear, I have learned this dance from Labanotation score. The piece was notated as it was taught by Rainer at the London International Summer School. Already the process has become more complicated. Where/what is “the dance” (the text)? Is it Trio A as choreographed and performed by Rainer in 1966, or as it was taught and notated in 2003? Or is my Trio A, the dance that is formulated in/as my dancing body, as initiated by this score, the site of investigation? Certainly it seems that my terrain is the spaces in between these various related sites, yet my interest is not in a comparative analysis (although it may come to that). My interest in the dance as text becomes further complicated by post-structuralist perspectives that deconstruct the role of “author,” and situate the meaning of the work not in its writing but in its reading, in reading-as-writing, reception as authorship. The shift of these theories/philosophies into the dancing body, my dancing body, makes my research site even more elusive. My (literal) reading of the dance also becomes my demonstration of it, my formation (re-formation? the relationship is not entirely clear) of the dance as it is danced by/as me.

After reading (most of) the dance from score (I am still a few pages away from the ending . . . which I hate; I want to read/know the dance in its entirety, but because of the deadline of the presentation, I feel myself giving in to yet another aspect of mediocrity in this project. The reality, however, is that I don’t technically need to read the entire dance in order to formulate perspectives on the topics about which I’m writing, and the reading of other sources in which to situate my assertions became necessary in the process) I have begun to situate my understanding of this/my experience in additional literature, spanning phenomenology, phenomenological hermeneutics, issues surrounding notation, reconstruction, staging dance works from score, choreological studies, history as a creative/embodied practice (Susan Foster), intertextuality in dance interpretation, essays by Yvonne Rainer, Sally Banes, Pat Catterson, etc. Here is where I continue to find myself, gathering more and more resources in which to situate my own experience, composing a field of texts in which to allow an intertextual understanding to emerge. It may sound compulsive, but I can’t seem to stop myself. I keep making trips to the library, I keep finding new sources, I keep going down to the Dance Notation Bureau Extension Office to survey more theses on issues in notation. I am so keenly aware of borders of my knowledge, where my understanding of these issues stops. I feel a voracious appetite for needing to have more at my fingertips from which to craft this paper. And yet time is running out.

Things I feel like I know I can say:
I think that the reading of Trio A from score can potentially serve as a stylistic training for the dance itself, this particular dance. I am interested in asserting that the way that the movement comes off of the page for me, without bringing anything else to it in the performative/dancerly sense, one is operating in the “style” of Trio A. There is a doing-ness to the dance, the long sequence of actions as a series of tasks, without pause, one giving way to the next, without variation in dynamics or phrasing. It is my experience that in embodying the dance as precisely as possible from the way in which it is written, this in the way of moving that the writing produces. Unlike other dances in which the reader/performer is expected to add to what is offered on the page, flesh it out (what an appropriate idiom) with expression and style and energy. Trio A asks for none of this. The score serves as a sequence of instructions for tasks, and that is the expectation for the dance.

I feel as if there is an education as to the nature of being in its embodiment, something about a pervasive, connective quality that is suffuse throughout . . . in the dance it is the almost meditative quality of the movement, the dynamic without variation, and the manner in which that way quality permeates and relates the 31-page sequence of unrepeated actions. Each moment is distinct, discrete, markedly unrelated to every other action in the dance; that was part of Rainer’s intention. And yet this suffuse, pervasive quality makes connections, addresses an underlying consistency through the body, through time, and space. I also feel as if it offers an education in the egalitarian nature of the body, no part more important than the other, and a similar commentary/perspective of three-dimensional space, no part receiving more attention than another. There is an awareness of “front,” but no addressing of front (in fact, a specific avoidance of addressing “front,” democratizing the space from its previously established theatrical hierarchy).

And that’s what I have. I need to plough through a few more sources, then begin to hammer out this paper. I need to dance the piece again and again and give more attention to how I construct its meaning from the various texts between which I have now situated it. This will be my Sunday afternoon. And likely most of the week to come. I just needed to address this project in a different space.

This week is the last time we will do “Autumn  Quartet.” Very complicated feelings surrounding that. The most prominent are a deep sadness and a kind of relief. But I don’t really have time to unpack that right now. Back to work.


In between places
4 February, 2010, 9:13 am
Filed under: inspiration | Tags: , , , , , ,

Somewhere between here:

and here:

and here:

and here:

Where is that?

Too Many Ideas, Too Little Time

I realize that there is paradox in the very fact that I am taking time to blog about not having enough time to serve all of the ideas spinning around in my life. But I am hoping that by giving them each a little attention, enough attention to put them down in words here, I will be making some space in which to function.

Perhaps the most significant and looming is the paper I am trying to author concerning the Love Art Laboratory, Sexecology, and Ecosexuality. I have compiled a bibliography of potential resources for the paper emerging from fields such as Eco-Feminism and Eco-Feminist Philosophy, Queer Ecology, Embodied Cognition, philosophies of Continuum Consciousness, Tantric Philosophy, and Sex-Positivism. It is my growing project/interest to construct a theoretical foundation for considering the expansion of the boundaries of what we conceive of as the body. I am not attempting to erase or denigrate the body; instead, I am interested in constructing a notion of the implication of the body within the perceived universe/environment. I think this may be a potential implication in the notion of Sexecology/Ecosexuality. From this theoretical foundation, I am interested in exploring the sexualization or eroticism of environment, through the implication of the body in the perceived universe/environment, and the potentially positive effects of implicating sexuality in the environment. Big, nebulous ideas. Need refinement. Not sure when there will be time.

Along with these ideas of expanding the boundaries of the body, I have recently been conceiving of the unity of the body and space. The foundation is the same, that our experience of space is essentially perceptual, perception is an essentially corporeal activity, and while that which is perceived may in fact occur separate from perception, within our experience of it, what it is and how we perceive it are inseparable. Thus, the implication of the corporeality of space. The space that we perceive occurs primarily within the bodily experience of it. An adjacent consideration is the continuum of experience of body/space. We never experience our selves/bodies in a void, but always in space. Similarly, we never experience space removed from our bodily context. The two are never known separate from one another. I am interested in how we might conceive of the body and space as unified. What might it mean to consider a dancing body-space rather than a dancing body in space. Ironically, I think these concerns may be addressed in the work of Rudolf von Laban. Specifically in Labanotation, movement and position is analyzed and described as the continual relationship between body and space. Rarely do you read or write the body without reading or writing where it is spatially. I have always considered it as writing the relationship between body and space, but what if it were to be considered as writing the body-space? How might that change the way we consider movement, bodies, ourselves, our environment, our actions, etc.? I think there are connections here worth exploring.

In the vein of Labanotation and relating to the course I am taking in the History and Theory of Postmodern/Contemporary Dance, I have a renewed interest in reading Yvonne Rainer’s “Trio A” from Labanotation score. I read about half of it last spring in my Intermediate Labanotation Course, and I am really interested in reading/embodying the dance in its entirety. I’m not sure when I will have the time to do such a reading/practice, but I have the interest. It may also be a project that could provide a vehicle for exploring these other ideas, the expanding “centrality” of the body (is that appropriate or ambiguous language?), the unity of body and space, etc. It is a desire. I’m not sure if it is one that can be served right now. But I am passionate about dance history and theory integrating dancing as a methodology and even modality of learning. I think notation provides an ideal implement by which to facilitate that integration. To re-learn/learn “Trio A” while studying Judson and the era of Postmodern dance seems like a dream.

There is also the lingering desire to choreograph a solo based on the “Alignment Annotations” object from Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced. I am interested in writing a Motif Description score of the graphic “object” (which annotates choreographic structures of movement alignments across a seventeen person cast), and from that score, generate movement material for a solo performer. There are all kind of levels and implications to that project. I’m not sure when it will be served. Maybe next quarter in “Current Issues” (which is looking at rigorous emergent creative research).

I am also interested in this notion of “sexual epistemology,” or ways of knowing that emerge from sexuality. I have been interested in exploring the methodologies of the field of sexology and investigating the validity for applying those methodologies to dance practice, be that dance pedagogy, choreographic practice, or even the study of history and theory. This is coming out of a recognition within my own creative practice that sexuality is often omitted or ignored in both dance and academia (especially dance academia). While I can’t be sure, I feel as if this is an effect of an underlying sex-negative perspective, that sex and sexuality are somehow compromising or contaminating rather than constructive or enriching. I’m not sure if this will become a significant research interest, but it is definitely an area of personal and creative interest. I think I am most interested in how human sexual behavior is analyzed, categorized, and discussed in fields such as sexology, and how those lens may be applied to or integrated into dance practices. How might we consider dance, movement, and the body for its sexuality, or how might sexuality reveal aspects of dance/movement/the body that were previously unconsidered? I have absolutely no working knowledge of the ideas I am discussing here, but those are my interests on the subject.

And there are always more. More to read about, more to dance about, more to write and talk and dream about. For now, I am back to work on reading and writing. I have “Autumn Quartet” practice tonight . . . as of now, our plan is to only do this piece four more time, including tonight. That makes me sad. And at the same time, it presents a different energy or urgency to the work. We’ll see how that surfaces.

Reflecting on the Spring Quarter

The spring quarter is almost complete. Two informal showings today, and I will be off into my summer. For a day, at least. Wednesday I start a two-week intensive Labanotation Teacher Certification Course. Which then segues straight into the summer quarter. But the schedule will have  bit more breathing room.

Perhaps my largest project this quarter was in my History, Theory, Literature of Choreography course. I decided to do a queer analysis of choreography by Frederick Ashton. Originally it was my intention to analyze two ballets, The Dream and Sylvia, but after in-barking on the analysis of The Dream, I found it so rich in “queer potential” that the emphasis of the research became The Dream alone. 

My primary interest in this research was to consider the potential contribution of Frederick Ashton’s choreography to queer culture, or for his choreography’s queer contribution to dance culture. It also came primarily as a response to Jane Desmond’s assertion of the centrality of dance history and queer theory to one another in her book Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On & Off The Stage. She writes:

“. . . to understand dance history and dance practices, we must analyze them in relation to histories of sexualities. Conversely, it suggests that the analysis of dance, as a form of material symbolic bodily practice, should be of critical importance to gay and lesbian studies and the ‘queer theory.’ Until now neither analytical approach has received much attention from dance studies scholars or from those in gay/lesbian studies . . . What happens to the writing of dance history and criticism when issues of sexuality and sexual identity become central? And what happens to our considerations of queer theory and to gay and lesbian studies when a dancing body takes center stage? What do we see that we didn’t see before? What questions do we ask that were heretofore unspeakable, unnameable, or unthinkable? What analytical tools will we need to formulate these questions and to develop provisional answers? In what ways might these initiatives reshape our readings of past histories and give rise to new ones? . . . This claim for the necessary intersection of sexuality studies and dance studies is based on two assertions: first, that issues of sexuality, and especially of non-normative sexuality, are not merely relevant to but play a constitutive and under recognized role in dance history; and second, that dance provides a privileged arena for the bodily enactment of sexuality’s semiotics and should thus be positioned at the center, not the periphery, of sexuality studies.”

These ideas were a central point of departure for this research. When I first became aware of Ashton’s sexuality, I was struck by the fact that his work (like so many other choreographers) is not discussed in relationship to his queer identity. It is not that I was interested in establishing a causal relationship between his autobiography and the content of his choreography, nor even speculating about his intentions for his own work. Instead, having become aware of his queer identity, I was interested in how one might interpret his ballet through a queer lens, and how this interpretation might reveal a relationship to queer culture.

In the paper, I attempt to situate The Dream in relationship to the queer culture, such as the relationship of the term “fairy” in the late 19th century and early-to-mid (to present?) 20th century describing an overtly effeminate man who was assumed to solicit male sexual partners (as opposed to “normal men” who abide by the socially expected behavior of masculinity). I also situate the ballet in relationship to the Radical Fairy movement of the 1970s that evolved out of the social politics of gay activists such as Harry Hay. Besides this “cultural situation” of the subject matter of Ashton’s ballet, the paper is primarily a choreographic analysis, looking at the narrative, character development, relationship of characters to one another, individual movement vocabulary, and use of partnering as it relates to the notion of “queer,” or a subversion of the normative or heteronormative.

While I would love to post the whole paper here, as it represents a significant investment in my own research, I will resist the urge. If you are very interested in this analysis, just let me know and I’ll try to find a way for you to read it.

Another significant portion of research this quarter has been in the are of Labanotation. In addition to pursuing my Elementary Labanotation Certification (almost done), I did the work of reading/learning two pieces of choreography in my Intermediate Labanotation course. We learned from score: Yvonne Rainer’s  “Trio A” and three versions of the Sylph’s variation in act II of La Sylphide (the versions were from 1849, 1865, and a version considered current to today). These were in vastly different dancing styles which necessitated different methods for employing the notation system. But more importantly (to me) they addressed a certain kind of hunger in the study of dance history. Too often in studying dance history, our primary points of access are through watching (visual) and reading/lectures (linguistic). Rarely do we have the opportunity to embody seminal dance works from the past. Both of these pieces represent profound periods in the history of dance, La Sylphide representing the Bournonville ballet tradition and the Romantic ballet, “Trio A” representing the 1960’s Judson/post-modern shift in American dance. Not only did we have the opportunity to understand the meaning of these periods in our bodies, but they were made to co-exist within our bodies, disparate styles and periods collapsed into a singular corporeal experience.

I want to briefly describe my experiences of each of these pieces. “Trio A” was surprising in many ways. The first was the extreme complexity of the notation for this piece. “Trio A,” along with most of the work that came out of the Judson group, is considered pedestrian, anti-thetical to traditional theater and concert dance. For me, having read and written about this work, it has always seemed as if it would be simple. The notation revealed that it is not; it is incredibly specific. This quality revealed itself further as we interpreted the notation and learned/practiced the piece. It demanded so much concentration which gave it an almost intense, meditative quality. As it became familiar, it retained this quality of a moving meditation. Some of the directives in the score have to do with evenness of tempo, phrasing, and dynamics. Nothing is to be emphasized, nothing should be given more importance than anything else. And like Rainer’s “NO Manifesto” (below), it is a run-on sentence, nothing repeating, just streaming along in a similar fashion. I feel this quality, the meditativeness, the almost effortless physicality (paired with intense mental focus) infecting the way I approach other movement material as well.

“NO Manifesto:

“NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.”

“Trio A” was meant to embody these ideas. You can see how they translate in Rainer’s performance in the video below:

La Sylphide was more difficult for me. The notation was specific but not as specific as “Trio A.” It made assumptions of certain stylistic understanding. Because my ballet training is not in Bournonville, these assumptions were lost on me. The learning took far more time. The most interesting part of this process was recognizing the relationship of one historical interpretation of the choreography to others, how movements were rearranged, cut, reversed, sped up, or slowed down, etc. It raised questions (that have come up throughout this year) about the nature of choreographic information. If the steps change, what is it that makes each “version” the same ballet? What is the choreography beyond the steps? What is necessary to its integrity? Etc.

I tried to find a video of this variation, but I couldn’t find the exact section on youtube. 

One of my most interesting courses was a Somatics survey taught by Abby Yager. The goals for this course were for practicing a deep listening to the body, cultivating a appreciation and understanding of the Self through this awareness of the body, and the development of a personal somatic practice based on one’s sense of one’s own body. This sort of information feeds directly into a central research interest of mine, the relationship of the body to identity, the embodied nature of existence and experience, and the relationship of a dance practice to the development (or choreography) of identity. I am interested in how these investigations might synthesize in my creative practice and choreography, how choreography might come out of this kind of self awareness, or how I might consciously consider the practice of choreography as a shaping of individual identity through its engagement of the body. In a larger scope, I am interested how individual identity comes out of the way we “choreograph” ourselves, how our conscious and subconscious choices of the ways we handle ourselves physically come to define us for ourselves and others. I am interested in how a cultivated awareness or “deep listening” of the body might contribute to this choreography of identity. The modalities explored in this course (Qi’Gong, Alexander technique, Yoga, Trager, experiential anatomy, Klein technique, etc.) have offered me a wide range of approaches to this sort of research.

This quarter I also produced a solo-in-progress entitled “Red Monster.” It was partially inspired by Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and evolved (for me) as an investigation of the ways in which shame and desire transform us (me) into monsters. I just posted a video of this piece on youtube. I don’t think it is an ideal performance (15 May 2009, as part of SIP, the first year dance MFA’s informal showing), for many reasons, but it does offer a look at what I have been exploring choreographically. I may continue to work on this piece. I’ll keep you posted on its evolution.

Here at the end of the quarter I also made several trips to Cincinnati where my twin brother lives. These trips were mostly about seeing art, but this past weekend I attended an event called Dance_MF, which was essentially a huge late-night dance party at Northside Tavern. It is a monthly event, and this was my first time there. It brought several things to mind. The first was a fairly simple observation, something that I have observed before in “dance floor” situations: individuals are far more likely to dance around one another or even in reference to one another than they are to actually dance with another person, by which I mean share any sort of physical contact. It’s always struck me as a disparity, that a social situation primarily characterized by its intense physicality is more based on a visual engagement than one of connected physicality. This is indicative of a larger social disparity with which I’ve been discontented for some time: despite the fact that we are embodied, corporeal creatures, our engagement with one another or knowledge of one another as human beings is more based on our visual interpretations of one another than our actual physical engagement. This strikes me as odd, in culture at large, but especially on a dance floor. I wonder if this awareness has emerged from my dance/choreographic life. To consider a three-to-four hour dance “composition” or “improvisation” in which the participants rarely touch one another feels either boring, ill-crafted, or a very specific social statement. What happens when we engage with life as art, social behavior as composition? How might “society” become a comment on society within the confines of the dance floor?

It also made me think of Jonathan Bollen’s article “Queer Kinesthesia: Performativity on the Dance Floor” (a portion of which can be read here). I’ll try to summarize this article sometime soon.

Another curious effect of this event was an awareness of myself as a “transgender presence.” I decided to wear a dress to the dance (an evolution of wearing skirts and heels and other traditionally female articles of clothing and accessories), not in an attempt to be female, but as an interpretation/expression/expansion of masculinity/my own identity as not being relegated to the narrow expression of identity traditionally associated with masculinity and maleness. At some point during the evening, I became aware of how much the population on the dance floor respected the gender binary. I do not identify as transgender, but in my transgression of traditional male expression, I became a kind of symbol of transgender. Which was an interesting dynamic on a dance floor, not to mention an interesting evolution in my perception of self.

And that’s my reflection on the spring quarter.